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Published: Thursday, 10/14/2010

Private lives surface with survivors

ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile - One is a great-grandfather four times over, another a 19-year-old dad.

A third - the oldest - is 63, and has spent a half-century working the mines.

A fourth had a wife and a mistress too.

The men who survived 69 days trapped underground after a mine collapse were making history as they - and their private lives - tumbled out into the light.

Known as the medic, Johnny Barrios Rojas' rescue was among the most anticipated - if only to see who would be there to greet him.

No. 21 of the men pulled from the collapsed mine, Mr. Barrios gained notoriety as the man who had two women at Camp Hope - his wife of 28 years, Marta Salinas, and his mistress of four, Susana Valenzuela.

Ms. Salinas apparently knew nothing of the affair until the two women ran into each other amid the tents pitched by family members anxiously holding vigil - and a very public spat ensued.

Mr. Barrios, 50, looked around sheepishly as he emerged from the rescue tube that elevated him tothe Earth's surface, peering through dark glasses as mining officials in red shirts applauded loudly.

Behind him, smiling widely and waiting for him to notice her stood Ms. Valenzuela. When he didn't, the round-faced strawberry blonde walked around to face Mr. Barrios and gave him a long kiss and hug, weeping into the shoulder of his jumpsuit as he whispered into her ear.

Ms. Salinas was nowhere to be seen.

Weeks earlier, Mr. Barrios' wife had ripped down a poster of her husband put up by his mistress.

Defiant, the mistress taped the poster back up, and beneath several poems and prayers she had dedicated to him, she signed it, "Your Wife."

Dubbed "el enfermero" - the nurse - Mr. Barrios served as the miners' medic during the ordeal, dispensing medication sent in by health officials, passing out nicotine patches, and photographing wounds.

He had promised her if he got through this alive they would finally have their church wedding - after three decades, four daughters, and seven grandchildren.

So when 63-year-old Mario Gomez emerged, grasped a Chilean flag, and dropped to his knees to pray, Lilianett Ramirez was the one who pulled him up from the ground and held him in a long embrace.

The promise of a proper wedding came in the first letter Mr. Gomez had ever written his wife during their 30 years together. Scrawled on sheets of notebook paper, the letter was placed in a plastic bag and tied to the end of the drill bit that first broke through to their underground purgatory, along with another miner's message announcing: "We're all OK in the refuge, the 33."

Read on television by President Sebastian Pinera, Mr. Gomez's "Dear Lila" letter was filled with faith and determination, and showed the world the miners were holding strong.

"Even if we have to wait months to communicate ... I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out OK," Mr. Gomez wrote. "Patience and faith. God is great and the help of my God is going to make it possible to leave this mine alive."

A miner since he was 12 years old, Mr. Gomez is missing three fingers on his left hand from a mine accident. He suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He made the ascent yesterday wearing an oxygen mask, and was on antibiotics and medicine for a bronchial inflammation.

After years spent mostly away from wife and family as he labored underground, relatives said there was a new appreciation for his wife.

"Feelings have changed. There's more love, in the sense that they're sharing things now, feelings that perhaps they never expressed before," said Julia Gordillo, 37. "Lily is content."

And, there's a wedding to plan.

Omar Reygadas became a great-grandfather - for the fourth time - while trapped underground.

The 56-year-old electrician had survived other mine collapses and was said to have exclaimed "Not again!" when he and the others were trapped by the Aug. 5 collapse.

Mr. Reygadas later helped organize life below the surface, calming others when they got nervous and helping them get what they needed from authorities outside.

"He is in charge of ensuring that we are well," one miner wrote to his wife.

Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest at 19, proposed to his 17-year-old girlfriend while he was trapped below, though his father urged him to reconsider. The couple have a 4-month-old baby girl.

"You are just 19, and have so much life ahead of you, to enjoy, to know people," read the letter Eugenio Sanchez sent to his son. "It cannot be that because you are now closed up in the mine that you are going to throw away all your plans."

"It's fine that you want to be with Helencita and everything... but get married? Well, marriage is a really serious thing."

But girlfriend Helen Avalos said she was sure they would be wed.

"He has to keep his word," she said. But first, "We'll have an enormous party. I think we'll have almost 500 people."



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